Doing Business in: Northampton
Working in Paradise City Certainly Has Advantages
Six years ago, the owners of Myers Information Systems Inc. relocated the broadcast-software company from Holyoke to Northampton.
“We don’t do business locally or regionally,” said President and CEO Crist Myers as he explained that decision. “We moved here because we wanted to offer our employees the very best atmosphere we could find to enhance their creativity.”
The business is adjacent to the Norwottuck Rail Trail so employees can take a stroll or ride their bicycles on it. They can also walk downtown, which Myers said is a wonderful option when they need a break from work. “They don’t have to jump in their cars to go somewhere to have lunch. They can interact with people downtown where there is a blend of academics and professionals,” he said, adding that employees also take advantage of the many events and offerings available after hours and on weekends, which range from concerts to performances, restaurants, and pubs.
The fact that Northampton is the hub of the five-college area also made the city an attractive choice of mailing address, Myers said. “When you’re in the software business, it is important to have young, professional talent, and this area is conducive to attracting that kind of employee. We seem to get a higher quality of résumés here and can take advantage of the local college graduating classes.”
His rent is higher than it would be in surrounding communities. “But without a doubt, it’s worth it,” he told BusinessWest. “It is a nicer environment for employees, and in the long run, that is a positive for them and for an employer. They enjoy being here because it’s safe and quiet and there is alternative transportation — buses and walking and biking trails, which cuts down their expenses. Some of our employees ride their bicycles to work, which they couldn’t do before.”
There are many business owners in Northampton who use similar words to describe why they’re located in Paradise City, said Suzanne Beck, executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce. She agrees that Northampton is very appealing to young people and professionals because of the lifestyle it offers.
“It combines rural and urban characteristics and has everything from farmland to a vibrant downtown commercial district,” she said. “It’s also very easy to get to, and there are no traffic jams at any time of the day.”
Although rents downtown can be pricey, Beck says there are many different price points throughout the city, particularly for office space. And entrepreneurs thrive in all areas. “Entrepreneurs are attracted to Northampton because there is a very strong entrepreneurial character which is visible due to the mix of retail stores and commercial and professional businesses downtown. The entrepreneurial spirit is tangible here,” Beck said.
In addition, Northampton’s residents are well-rounded. Teri Anderson, the city’s economic development coordinator, says 91% have a minimum of a high-school diploma, and 50% have a bachelor’s degree or higher, making for a highly skilled and educated workforce.
“We also have a very good public-school system and offer business-development assistance through our office to help with site selection, resource and referrals, financial assistance, and business counseling sessions,” she told BusinessWest.
The single tax rate, set at $12.96 per thousand of assessed valuation, is another attractive draw. “It’s pretty low compared to a split tax where commercial and industrial property is taxed at $35 to $40 per thousand,” Anderson said, citing figures from surrounding communities. “And the proximity of the five colleges offers strong research capabilities and access to students for internships.”
Center of Attention
Northampton has a number of business hubs, including its downtown district, King Street and Pleasant Street, the I-91 Industrial Park, Village Hill, Florence Center, and the smaller Leeds Center.
“We have manufacturing and technology here, as well as a strong independent retail and restaurant sector,” Anderson noted. “Plus, Northampton’s commercial property values seem to hold their value even during recessions.”
Space is available for small and medium-sized businesses throughout the city, and opportunities exist at Village Hill, which occupies the grounds of the former Northampton State Hospital, which has been the subject of an ongoing reuse project for more than 20 years.
“Kollmorgen relocated to the village, and there is another 100,000 square feet available on smaller sites; it’s a good spot for small retailers and restaurants,” Anderson said, noting that there is a ready-made market of employees and residents who live in the 90 units on the property.
The downtown area is thriving and sees a steady stream of both foot and vehicular traffic. “We have one of the strongest downtowns in Western New England,” said Anderson. “We’re known as a cultural destination and have a large number of art organizations, businesses, and cultural events which range from art shows to music and concerts. In fact, Northampton has been listed among the top 25 art destinations in the country since 2000 by American Style magazine.”
The Three County Fairground, which serves as a showcase for cultural and agricultural exhibitions, also attracts tourists. “The Paradise City Arts Festival brings thousands of people to Northampton each year from all over New England and New York. It is important to downtown, as it is very beneficial to the retailers and restaurants,” Anderson said.
Pat Goggins has owned Goggins Real Estate for 30 years, and does most of the commercial rentals and sales business in Northampton. He said his job is made much easier because of the town’s well-deserved reputation as a cultural, retail, and culinary center.
“All people have to do is drive through the downtown area to see that it is thriving,” he said. “And the Business Improvement District, led by Dan Yacuzzo, helps make that happen.”
King Street and Pleasant Street benefit due to a ripple effect, he continued. “While they don’t have the same walkability as downtown, they lead directly there and are able to satisfy what the downtown area can’t in terms of demand.”
Meanwhile, Florence offers a village setting and is quieter than the downtown area, which some people appreciate. “It has its own business center and an industrial section in the old mill buildings, where space is available,” Anderson said.
Goggins concurred, and said Florence “has more of a service-based downtown but people love the quaintness and pace there.”
The industrial park is another attractive option. It is home to a wide range of ventures, including VOmax, which makes performance apparel for a number of sports, and relocated there from Plainfield in February of 2007.
“The top three reasons we moved here are access to a trained labor force, access to a major highway and metropolitan areas such as Boston and New York, and available space — we didn’t have the space to expand in Plainfield,” explained owner Michael Restuccia. “And the local access to art and design culture has certainly helped influence some of our newer products and designs.”
He said VOmax has taken advantage of the intelligent, well-skilled college population in the area. “We’ve hired a number of interns to help with initiatives, and have also engaged a local marketing and consulting firm to help build our brand,” he said. “They’ve helped us sign license agreements with the National Basketball Assoc., the National Hockey League, and Major League Baseball teams.”
The city is also becoming known as a prime location for green businesses and companies such as Environmental Compliance Systems Inc., which recently opened a new division in Florence in the Nonotuck Mill.
Beck said one of the factors that attracts such companies is that the majority of Northampton business owners share similar values. “There are a lot of businesses here that are dedicated to supporting the community as well as their employees,” she said. “They are family-friendly.”
And while business owners and their employees support Northampton, it supports them as well, providing an attractive blend of commerce, activity, the arts, architecture, and, in a word, energy.
For visitors and business owners alike, it is truly paradise found.